What was your very first connection with 1984?
It was probably in the early 1980s. The significance of this is that I think the book was a different thing – or was approached in a different way, before the year, 1984. It tended to be read as a kind of prophecy. Or the prophetic elements of it were more potent to readers. We were all waiting with dread for 1984 to come along, fearing it would be as Orwell had “predicted”.
In fact, in some ways, it was worse.
1984 was a key year in terms of the world’s fear of nuclear obliteration (Reagan, ‘flock of seagulls’ incident, Star Wars program and Mutually Assured Destruction). As uni students, we seriously believed that the world would not see 2000. We marched with over a hundred thousand others, led by Australian Nobel laureate Patrick White, through the streets of Sydney protesting nuclear arms proliferation. Orwell’s book, in fact, might have looked a little quaint around that time.
What does 1984 mean to you?
How to be an individual. How to love. How to live together. These universal things are the ones that I respond to in the book, now liberated from the prophecy thing. And I think they supersede the Stalinist analogies too, the totalitarianism. To me, the totalitarianism in the context for these more fundamental questions.
Do you have a favourite Orwell quote?
I don’t know about ‘favourite’, but I am disturbed by a line from a letter where he talks about the fact that the writer or the artist cannot impact on the world as a writer or artist, because writers are essentially liberal, and the world is (forever, it seems) moving in an illiberal direction. The writer must therefore make her mark doing something else (for Orwell, taking up arms).
What is your most enduring memory of the book?
The fantasy of emotional/spiritual connection Winston has with O’Brien: a highly novel and disturbing manifestation of unrequited love.
How important do you think it is for audiences to see 1984 onstage now, in 2017?
There will be some in the audience, I hope, who are inclined to recognise the trap they’ve built for themselves; the dehumanising con they’ve subjected themselves to in order for tech barons to make obscene profits. My fantasy is that some kids may see it, and decide to cut down on screen time! (spoken as the father of recent teenagers!)